July 31, 2014

Poseidon of the East (30)

One way to read Atsuyu is as a politician who rose high riding the tide of public opinion and thought he was on top of the world when the wave disappeared out from under him.

From the early days of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government was challenged by a series of attempted coups carried out by high-minded idealists and ideologues who always pledged ultimate fidelity to the emperor. Although put down in short order, these insurrections proved popular in the public imagination and had the effect of pushing the government further and further to the right in an effort to outflank public sentiment.

The high-water mark was undoubtedly the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was celebrated with wild acclaim. The Japanese public thought it was the final act of a hot war with the east and a cold war with the west that had stretched on for a decade. It was in fact only the beginning of an unimaginably bloody end.

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July 28, 2014

Exploring Europa

A fascinating presentation from NASA TV.

Though nobody at NASA is supposed to say so, this is an excellent argument for why manned space flight is an (almost) total waste of money. Russia charges $70 million a head for its ISS taxi service. NASA could finance a Europa mission for the cost of shipping a couple of astronauts to the ISS.

For the price of the ISS itself, NASA could have sent 100 Volkswagen-sized Curiosity rovers to Mars. All of the truly useful people at NASA work at JPL.

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July 24, 2014

Poseidon of the East (29)

This chapter was perhaps inspired by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's campaign against the Mori clan in 1582. Under the direction of his chief strategist, Kuroda Kanbei, Hideyoshi's troops diverted the Ashimori River to flood Takamatsu Castle, the Mori's stronghold. The military term is mizuzeme (水攻め) or "attacking with water."

When Oda Nobunaga was assassinated by Akechi Mitsuhide in the midst of the battle, Hideyoshi quickly accepted the surrender of the Mori on generous terms (well, other than the castle lord, Shimizu Muneharu, having to commit seppuku) and stole a march on Mitsuhide, eventually defeating him at the Battle of Yamazaki.

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July 21, 2014

Of soccer and spoilers

Let's look at sports from a literary angle.

Perhaps the differences between the preferences of the average American sports fan (who cares about soccer every four years) and the rest of the world (who can't live without it) can be analogized to how people respond to the twists and turns of narrative plot.

More specifically, does knowing what's going to happen matter? Or put another way, do you read spoilers or studiously avoid them?

In Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer sums up research by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt at U.C. San Diego. Testing the enjoyability of a range of short stories with and without spoilers appended, they concluded that "spoilers don't spoil anything."

Almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler. This suggests that I read fiction the right way, beginning with the end and working backwards. I like the story more because the suspense is contained.

As I argued before, it is the predictability in the strategic play of American sports--the sports fan knows what to expect, when and how--that makes them popular, while the inability to anticipate even a definitive ending in soccer is at the core of its appeal.

Soccer is a story where "anything can happen," including nothing. Soccer as postmodern theater: instead of Waiting for Godot we're "Waiting for a Goal." The genre in genre fiction, by contrast, is its own spoiler, where "the same only different" is a virtue.

Or put another way--to switch metaphors in the middle of the stream--American football (done well) is like a classical symphony while soccer (done well) is like jazz improvisation. And like soccer, I'm afraid I respect jazz a lot more than I actually enjoy it.

And I happily read spoilers.

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July 17, 2014

Poseidon of the East (28)

The "poetry recital" mentioned on page 219 specifically refers to renga (連歌) or linked verse. Following a set of established themes and rules, the participating poets would create a longer work (often 36 lines long) by extemporaneously composing alternating stanzas.

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July 14, 2014

Devil of a role

I noted in my review of R.I.P.D. the lazy tendency to equate "ugly" and "evil." Though in the "realistic" world of crime drama, the opposite is true. Watching Law & Order, you could be forgiven for concluding that every crime in New York City was committed by a well-coiffed Manhattanite.

And yet the stereotype stubbornly persists in the F&SF realms. One of the nice things about Frozen was having the handsome young prince be the villain. Space opera especially seems fixated on humanity's struggles with grotesque alien creatures. (That "hive mind" thing is getting old too.)

This does open the door to B-grade actioners like Species and Lifeforce that play against type by casting a fashion model as the alien villainess and giving her many opportunities to take off her clothes. Though these movies could also be read as Victorian allegories about the dangers of sex.

Darth Vader was most interesting when he was cool and wanted to "end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy." Then the whole thing degraded into a mud wrestling match, reducing the moral stakes in Star Wars to white hat/black hat terms that make old westerns look sophisticated.

Compare, for example, these two quite different depictions of the devil by Ray Wise in Reaper and Peter Stormare in Constantine. Ray Wise's performance in particular is a perfect illustration of C.S. Lewis's observation that

The greatest evil . . . is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

Peter Stormare only shows up in the last ten minutes of the movie, yet appears fully realized as Constantine's thus-far invisible antagonist (though not, in fact, his real enemy).

And then there's Al Pacino playing the devil, who ever since Milton made him the biggest anti-hero in literature (with all the best lines to boot), has no doubt been dying to be played by Al Pacino. Again opposite Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate.

The creepy in these scenes comes from their characters, not from the special effects department and certainly not from their appearances. Granted, we're back in rich white dude territory (so they must be bad). But at least they're bad with reasons, motivations, and no apologies.

Jagi Lamplighter points to the equally galling trend in "literary fiction fantasy" of making bad guys not really bad but misunderstood (unless they're rich white dudes). I give the silly Independence Day a wide pass because it insists that, naw, these aliens are just plain nasty.

I mean, they go around destroying all kinds of stuff without filing an Environmental Impact Statement first. The gall!

Related posts

The Big Bad

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July 10, 2014

Poseidon of the East (27)

At the end of the chapter, Atsuyu spells out one of the stark economic realities of medieval warfare that often goes missing in historical fantasies: "I didn't want to take farmers off their land and press weapons in their hands."

An army marches on its stomach. That food has to come from somewhere and pillaging only goes so far. This connection is made clear in Japanese historical dramas, as the size and strength of a domain was measured in koku (石), equivalent to five bushels of rice.

Shoguns punished disobedient warlords by reducing the size of their provinces, measured according to the the crop yield in koku.

An army breaking free of its supply lines and living off the land, as in Sherman's March to the Sea, would only guarantee mutually assured destruction in a country like Japan with so little arable land.

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July 07, 2014


Sometimes a by-the-numbers bubble-gum flick can be too derivative even for me. R.I.P.D. ("Rest in Peace Department") had all the right ingredients for a satisfying serving of the same-only-different fast food but didn't contain a speck of anything actually different.

The beginning is a total rip-off of Men in Black. The ending is a total rip-off of Avengers. The middle is half a rip-off of Constantine (and a reminder of how good Keanue Reeves is in parts like that) and half a rip-off of the far funnier and more imaginative Reaper.

Considering all the obvious MIB references, they should have pulled out all the stops. The genre could certainly use a Spaceballs-style parody. But the script could never commits to that course. Or any other.

Jeff Bridges tries to be a country-western version of Tommy Lee Jones in MIB and now and then succeeds by devouring all the scenery. Ryan Reynolds as his sidekick is so hopelessly generic that you could swap him out for any 30-something male television lead and never notice.

It doesn't help that Kevin Bacon isn't the slightest bit scary as the bad guy demon. Given the lame material he has to work with, that's mostly not his fault. This movie relies entirely on the "evil is ugly" equation. Despite wearing globs of latex, Kevin Bacon doesn't look very ugly.

I'm also getting quite tired of superheros and supervillains systematically trashing every metropolitan area on the planet (this week: Boston). It all looks like stock footage by now. (Man of Steel bored me silly for exactly this reason.)

Nevertheless, I might have managed to overlook many of these failings were it not for the egregious narrative errors, starting with a first scene plucked from the middle of the movie and then snapping back to the actual beginning.

I hate, hate, hate that device. Even worse, the script then proceeded to spell everything out like an Ikea instruction manual. So much for mystery. So much for wonder.

Before he got so full of his own style, M. Night Shyamalan did it right in The Sixth Sense, giving nothing away before he had to. I figured out the big plot twist early on. Still, I hugely appreciated it not being spelled out and handed to me on a silver platter.

A lot of otherwise watchable B-grade actioners are ruined by this incessant need to explain every bit of backstory like the job history on a resume.

Cut 90 percent of the special effects, give Jeff Bridges more than the scenery to chew on, and R.I.P.D. might have added up to a fun, even filling, flick. Alas, it's one of those coulda-woulda-shoulda movies that doesn't deliver on anything but a big, boring special effects budget.

Which reminds me, Constantine is coming to NBC this fall as a drama series, with Welsh actor Matt Ryan as John Constantine (though politically correctness hilariously dictates that his character can't smoke). How different will it be from Reaper and Supernatural?

I loved the movie, so I'm looking forward to finding out. I just hope they hire writers (editors or consultants) who know enough about Christian eschatology to suspend my disbelief.

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July 03, 2014

Poseidon of the East (26)

Atsuyu's comment that "they got here faster than expected" reminds me of the Battle of Shizugatake.

In May 1583, still consolidating his power base after the death of his liege, Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi's forts in Shizugatake came under attack by Shibata Katsuie, another of Nobunaga's former generals. Hideyoshi's troops made a four-day march in 36 hours, broke through the besieging armies and cut off their retreat, leaving Katsuie with no defenders. Katsuie's castle fell soon after.

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